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Two Benzie Townships Making Room for Sprawl

Experts say new plan’s vague wording won’t control development

February 27, 2008 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  While Frankfort and other Benzie communities are trying to direct growth toward built-up areas, experts say Inland and Homestead Townships’ draft master plan does the opposite.

BENZIE COUNTY—About a year ago, officials in Inland and Homestead Townships decided to take back local control of their planning and zoning from Benzie County because, they said, the county was badly mismanaging those two crucial services.

So the townships took the first step to withdraw from Benzie County’s jurisdiction: It formed the Homestead Inland Planning Commission, which then held five monthly meetings to draft a new master plan for the two counties. Although the plan does not contain input from residents—the meetings had no specific way to invite, welcome, or consider suggestions—the joint commission released it, along with a map illustrating their vision for their townships’ future growth, at the end of the summer.

But the draft plan, which now faces public hearings in the townships on March 5 and 6, is attracting criticism from some neighboring governments, as well as from a Homestead Township resident widely regarded as a top environmental and land-use attorney.

Grand Traverse County’s planning commission noted that the new plan proposed significant increases in the amount of land zoned for commercial development along the townships’ main highway, U.S. 31. And separate letters to the joint commission from the attorney and from Benzie County, reached remarkably similar conclusions: The draft plan would harm the county’s rural character by allowing so much sprawling commercial development along that highway and would allow suburban-style residential development on about half of each township’s land.

The attorney, Jim Olson of Homestead Township, had another concern: He warned that the plan would require higher taxes to pay for the new and widened roads, additional road maintenance, and bigger public safety budgets that spread-out development requires.

"It will turn most private lands in the townships into a suburban bedroom community of medium-density tract homes to serve Traverse City without the tax base to support it," Mr. Olson wrote in his letter.

Commissioners rejected both criticisms at a subsequent public meeting, however, noting that Mr. Olson is an environmentalist, and that they would deal with Benzie County’s concerns while writing the zoning ordinance for the master plan.

The controversy over the townships’ draft plan comes at a pivotal time for Benzie and the rest of the six-county Grand Traverse region. The county is currently reviving its own long-dormant master plan, which favors regional planning, compact development, and open-space preservation over sprawl—things that the townships’ plan does not do. And, across the entire region, many local officials and citizens are concluding that, in order to protect their quality of life, grow their local economies, and protect farmland and scenic vistas from unwise development, they should collaborate on a regional land use and transportation plan.

For example, Benzie’s county commissioners, and those from Antrim, Kalkaska, Leelanau, and Wexford Counties, voted last month to each spend $6,000 to help pay for inclusion in The Grand Vision—a unique, citizen-based planning project. In another, related example, the Vision project has so far attracted more than 1,000 participants to its planning workshops in Grand Traverse County.

Meanwhile, in interviews with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, Homestead and Inland Township officials revealed that, while they always said that they formed their joint commission to counteract Benzie’s mismanagement, they are also motivated by a larger concern: They fear that Benzie’s master plan, which won an award for its county-wide approach to curbing sprawl by directing most future development to already built-up areas, will harm their communities’ economic interests.

Commercial Interruption?
Some statements in the townships’ draft plan seem to embrace the same goals as Benzie’s master plan—for example, stating that the townships want to avoid too much commercial strip development along their main highway.

But official comment letters from nearby local governments indicate that the draft text is likely too vague to accomplish that goal. John Sych, the planner for Grand Traverse county, said as much while he and colleagues drafted his county’s comments on the draft plan at a public meeting.

"Based on what’s provided in the plan, those commercial areas need to be defined," Mr. Sych said.

In its own response to the counties’ comment letters, the joint commission said that the concerns about vague language did not apply because the commission plans to address that problem through its zoning ordinance, which would "concentrate future commercial uses at Honor and in ‘nodes’ at appropriate locations along U.S. 31."

In a follow-up interview, Mr. Sych said that there were two ways to successfully manage commercial growth along U.S. 31, and both involved tweaking the draft plan.

"One way would include providing additional information, illustrations, etcetera, within the master plan," he said. "Another way would be to approve the plan as is and then revisit each node and develop more detailed plans…

"Plans are essentially policy," he added, explaining why clarity is so crucial to master plans. "A zoning ordinance would only be addressed once the policy is made clear and adopted."

Safe At Home?
Another big problem with the draft master plan, according to its critics, is that it proposes "medium density housing," which usually means zoning for lots no smaller than five acres apiece, throughout most of both townships’ private land.

Rod Cortright, the former director of the Michigan State University Extension in Charlevioix County, told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service that, unless done carefully, planning for five-acre and even 10-acre minimum lots sets a township up for rapid conversion of its rural landscape into tract residential housing.

"It's not good for agriculture, forestry or anything else," Mr. Cortright said.

He said the townships could, instead, include conservation design in its master plan, because it allows people who sell their land to designate certain portions of it for housing—say, in half- or one-acre plots—and preserve the rest for shared open space, agriculture, or forestry. For example, an owner could sell his 100-acre parcel, divide 30 acres of it into smaller lots, allow the same number of homes, but preserve a lot of land.

Mr. Cortright said that approach is often more profitable than the five-acre-minimum approach because it can significantly raises the value—and price—of the property involved.

Mr. Olson, a partner in the Traverse City law firm Olson, Bzdok & Associates, a firm that has provided legal services for the Michigan Land Use Institute, pointed to another problem with the plan’s approach to residential development: Its future land-use map only allows rural and suburban housing.

"This, in effect, signals the public that the townships want to be bedroom communities of Traverse City, with sprawling site condos and subdivisions," his letter stated. "Even if this is not a goal, such a sweeping statement will make it very difficult to control sprawl and protect natural resources and rural character.

"Medium density should be encouraged in or near villages and existing water and sewer infrastructure," Mr. Olson continued.

The current draft plan, however, allows that density throughout both townships.

Embracing Sprawl, Resisting Smart Growth
The townships’ joint planning effort in Benzie County stems directly from Michigan’s 2003 Joint Municipal Planning Act, which was written to allow townships, villages, and cities work together to resist sprawl. It grew from recommendations by Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s bipartisan, blue ribbon Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, which considered the effect sprawling land use was having on the state, and what could be done about it.

The council found that kind of development was harming the state’s economy, natural resources, quality of life, and competitiveness. So it recommended that Michigan allow its almost 2,000 local units to share planning with neighboring governments so that they could take a regional approach to land-use management, which most planning experts agree is by far the most effective way to contain sprawl.

Some local governments have embraced the law’s regional philosophy: Three townships and a village in southwestern Washtenaw County, for example, formed a joint planning commission to better manage the development headed their way from metropolitan Detroit and Ann Arbor.

Homestead and Inland Township officials say, however, that they are using the law for a different reason: to counteract what they say is the county’s poor administrative practices.

Yet interviews with some joint commission members reveal that their work is also inspired by another reason: Their opposition to the county’s master plan, even though language in their own draft plan seems to support it.

Homestead Township Supervisor Cathy Demitroff, who has served the joint commission as its non-voting secretary, believes that the county’s master plan, if followed, would squelch her constituents’ prosperity by halting development in the two townships.

"We are hoping to (facilitate jobs in the townships) because, right now, though they will tell you they are not, the people in control over at the (Benzie County) Government Center are trying to close this county off," she said. "They are being governed by power people, money people who want it closed (off to development.)"

Advocates of the county’s long-dormant master plan reject that claim out of hand., and say they view it as a formula for long-term prosperity for the entire county that protects the county’s natural resources.

And, they add, the strong participation that The Grand Vision is attracting in the six-county area—participation that has yet to include any member of the joint committee—confirms that most local residents, including many businesspeople and local and regional chambers of commerce, view regional planning as crucial to economic success.

Glenn Puit, a veteran journalist, is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Emmet County policy specialist. In Part Two of his report, Glenn talks to joint commission members about their belief that curbing sprawl will harm their communities, as well as to economic development experts whose research and practical experience indicate that the opposite is true. Reach Glenn at glenn@mlui.org.

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